This first novel by Sarah Salway is an arrangement of seemingly random thoughts, anecdotes and a minuscule drama about young women and married men, organised alphabetically. Beginning with "Ambition" and ending with "Zzzzzz", the book charts the adventures of the twentysomething Verity Bell as she lays open her life's journey, taking us through Breasts, Daisies, God, Jealousy, Lust, Pain Indexes, Revenge and Woolworth's along the way.
The heroine is a pleasant creation, trusting, romantic, naive, optimistic and grief-stricken in turn. Her relationships are passionate, her outlook that of a child. Her best pal, Sally, wears the trousers in their friendship: when they consider going to a tattoo parlour, it is a given that Sally will have "SALLY" etched into her arm and that Verity will have "SALLY", too.
As both young women weave in and out of difficult part-time love affairs - Verity with more anxiety and Sally with more material reward - the complications involved in getting what you want and wanting what you get are explored in some detail.
Yet it is Verity's observations and asides that are the most important thing in her life. She clings to them in the absence of both parents, who have recently died. She uses them to ward off unpleasant thoughts and intolerable feelings. These observations punctuate the book; in fact they take the place of plot, as the girls' experience is given a secondary role.
Occasionally Verity's aperçus are dazzling: "If you lie in a field of broad bean plants in flower, just as the sun is going down, you will find yourself surrounded by the smell of Chanel No 5," she tells us. (I've made a mental note to test out the theory at my sister-in-law's farm, come summer.) There are also some satisfying moments of high comedy, such as when an elderly woman prepares herself for a trip to a gynaecologist by undergoing a regime of intense hygiene, only to realise later, after the doctor oddly thanks her for "making such a big effort", that the cleanser she had so carefully applied was green glitter paint.
Yet there is not quite enough life to the main character and her funny ways to sustain an entire book. Likeable, certainly, and sometimes entertaining, Verity was, I felt, intended to be original and extraordinary in a way she did not quite seem to be. The novel's playful atmosphere and structure also made it difficult to feel involved with the characters' more uncomfortable feelings. In addition, the author's fragmentary style prevents her from investigating anything too deeply. There is a deftness to Sarah Salway's writing, which is never clumsy or inelegant. But I couldn't help feeling that I prefer my heroines, and their narratives, to be a little more substantial.
Susie Boyt's next novel, 'Only Human', will be published in July by Review
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